In brief: Validating her comeback from an extended absence, Serena delivered one of her most impressive seasons to date in a career that simply refuses to fade into twilight.
As she languished for months through a series of perilous injuries and illnesses, Serena must have wondered whether her last moment on a tennis court would remain the trophy ceremony at Wimbledon in 2010. That fortnight of brilliance would have marked a worthy endpoint to a legendary career, while her comeback in 2011 appeared at times as though it would rewrite the script with a much less flattering ending. Although she won two North American tournaments and reached the US Open final, Serena suffered an embarrassing setback there against Sam Stosur in which she lost not only the match but her poise. When the new season began in Australia, moreover, a desultory defeat to Makarova spurred further doubts regarding the wisdom of her comeback. Even Serena sounded much less than convinced during early 2012, admitting—or purporting to admit—that tennis no longer captured her enthusiasm as it once had. An abysmal performance against Wozniacki at her home tournament in Miami, another event that she had dominated, suggested that the comeback had reached a crisis point.
Digging into the trenches of a clay that often had frustrated her, Serena mounted a resurgence on the green clay of Charleston and the blue clay of Madrid, the latter of which included vintage displays against top-three opponents Azarenka and Sharapova. Similar to Federer’s simultaneous title charge, that futuristic surface ironically revitalized the ancien regime of the WTA with its affinity for heavy serving and first strikes, executed better by none than the American. But Serena did not return from her arduous absence to win Charleston, or even Madrid, for those triumphs would bear little impact on her legacy. She had returned to enhance her collection of major titles, and a shocking first-round loss to world #115 Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros suggested that she had progressed no further in that direction a year into her comeback. As Martina Navratilova might say, it was time to put up or shut up.
Wimbledon, then, loomed as a watershed moment for better or for worse in Serena’s attempt to recapture her former glory. More than once during that memorable midsummer fortnight, her visit there threatened to end in a disappointment that would have damaged her confidence severely in the wake of her Roland Garros collapse. Most notable among these junctures was her third-round match against the persistent Zheng Jie, one of the few women whose steeliness could match Serena. Despite the vast gulf between their games, Zheng forced the former champion to hold serve three times to stay in the tournament—before the first week had ended. Still alive by only a thread, Serena then withstood a more unexpected challenge from Shvedova a round later, surviving a 7-5 third set more through pure perseverance than brilliance. Those narrow escapes behind her, she then faced a sequence of opponents far greater in talent against whom her margin for error would shrink.
As she had near the peak of her career, however, Serena found her best tennis at the precise moment when the tournament reached its pivotal stages. When her groundstrokes wavered, her serve propelled her through straight-sets triumphs over Kvitova and Azarenka, who could not match her hold for hold. A first-time major finalist in Agnieszka Radwanska appeared to pose a less formidable test, especially in view of her vulnerable serve. Cruising through the first set and a half with scant ado, Serena edged within range of a routine afternoon when her vaunted nerve deserted her without warning. Suddenly thrust into a final set against an underdog with nothing to lose, she did what she could not do at Roland Garros and willed herself to collect her composure, sharpen her focus, and carve a path through adversity. Her fourteenth major title certainly ranked among the hardest-earned of her career and surely among her most satisfying as well.
Back on British grass after a brief detour through North America, Serena delivered a performance at the Olympics that resembled her Wimbledon effort only in its result. Just the second woman (after Steffi Graf) to complete a career Golden Slam, she won the ultimate prize at the Olympics in both singles and doubles, the former for the first time. Whereas she had struggled through many of her matches in her first appearance at the All England Club, her second appearance featured nothing but dominance at a level as suffocating as anyone has achieved in the sport. Only once, against the unheralded Urszula Radwanska, did Serena lose as many as five games in a match, and she lost only seventeen all week. Crushing all four of the fellow #1s whom she played there, she thundered across the finish line with two of her most overwhelming victories to date against Azarenka and Sharapova, the women who joined her atop the podium and atop the WTA this season.
Not sated by her summer of redemption, Serena entered New York determined to erase recent memories from her home major, where most crowned her the clear title favorite. Unglued against Clijsters and against Stosur in her last two appearances, she had melted under the US Open’s unique spotlight instead of embracing it. As much as she may have attempted to justify those embarrassing moments, she must have welcomed the opportunity to set the record straight with a more worthy achievement in this city of short memories. An accommodating draw sprinkled with upsets in her vicinity smoothened Serena’s route to the final, before which she faced no opponent ranked higher than Errani or more accomplished than Ivanovic. Dismissing all of her first six challengers with authority, she brought the same air of conviction to the final and eased through the first set free from any obstacle to her supremacy.
At no phase of the tournament did Serena look detached or disinterested for long, however, even against the most hopelessly overmatched of her opponents. Vigorous fistpumps and glares of resolve illustrated just how deeply she desired this title, as did the tension in her swings and body language when her game began to betray her in the second set. Unable to halt the momentum of an emboldened Azarenka, Serena sensed that a match under her control had begun to spiral away from her, like the Wimbledon final. But this time she faced a proven major champion who could match her emotional intensity and nearly match her athleticism, so her predicament looked more dire than it had against Radwanska. As Azarenka built lead after lead in the third set, only to watch Serena claw back again and again, the escalating pressure on both women proved a true test of their resilience as well as spell-binding theater for the audience. One brief passage of frailty when the world #1 served for the match offered the veteran the opportunity that she needed, and Serena pounced with the alacrity of a panther before her prey could recover.
Already having accomplished more than any of her rivals in 2012, the American issued one last statement of supremacy at the year-end championships in Istanbul. Without finding her best form for more than intermittent passages, she nevertheless swept all five of her matches against top-five opponents without dropping a set. While the ranking positioned her below Azarenka and Sharapova when the season ended, even the casual observer could recognize who remained the best player in the world, a decade after she had established herself in that position.
Number to note:
1: the number of players who won more than one major in 2013. In an era of ATP dominance and WTA parity, which looked likely to end this year, few would have expected only Serena to achieve this feat.
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